August 16, 2007

At the bottom of the deep blue sea

Dal students take part in discovery expedition

Lead scientist Ellen Kenchington with Dal students Tyler Jordan and Lindsay Beazley. (Abriel photo)
Their mission: to explore strange new worlds, to extend knowledge of biodiversity, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

“Wow! We were seeing things never seen by anyone else,” says Dal student Tyler Jordan, part of the scientific team who got to peek into little-known ecosystems two-and-a-half kilometres below the ocean’s surface.

“We saw all these amazing colours and crazy corals. This is a marine protected area (the Sable Gully), so there’s been no bottom trawling. The diversity of sea creatures was something else.”

The 21-day expedition took place in July aboard the Coast Guard ship Hudson. The ship was outfitted with a ROPOS — a remotely operated vehicle about the size of a Volkswagen bug — which was sent to the depths of the Atlantic and beamed back photographs and video. It even gathered samples with its two robotic arms, one with a suction device. (The ROPOS worked so far beneath the ocean’s surface that it took more than two hours to hit bottom.)

See photo essay: Scientists uncover mysteries below the ocean's surface

The expedition explored four mysterious areas off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, including the Sable Gully, a deep submarine canyon some 200 nautical miles from Nova Scotia, and the Stone Fence, located at the Southern edge of the Laurentian Channel, between Cape Breton and Newfoundland.

“Undergraduate students like us just don’t get opportunities like this,” says student Lindsay Beazley. “I actually got to sit in the ‘hot seat’ and direct the ROPOS 2,000 metres below. It was amazing.”

The expedition was led by Ellen Kenchington, a research scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography and adjunct professor at Dalhousie. Dr. Kenchington was glued to the monitors as the ROPOS shined light in dark ocean recesses and sent back images: scallop-like organisms clinging to cliff faces; bright pink bubblegum coral previously only found off Bermuda and the Bahamas; a single-cell protozoan the size of a grapefruit; a new species of starfish.

But the strangest sight may have been the octopuses dubbed Dumbo. During ROPOS's second dive, the operator suddenly swerved the camera to follow a one-metre-in-length octopus with large fins attached to its head.

“It was exciting for us, but Ellen was the one jumping up and down. She was so happy, so absorbed. She never left while the ROPOS was underwater, sometimes for more than 12 hours at a time,” says Mr. Jordan.

“I was just so pleased that this experience could be shared with people just starting out on their careers,” says Dr. Kenchington, who teaches a third-year marine biology class on algae.

Now back on land, the professor and her students, all of whom are entering their fourth year in the marine biology program, will mine their experience long into the future.

Mr. Jordan, 20, from Ottawa, is charged with extracting DNA from the coral samples to study their evolutionary history and to assess paternity.

Ms. Beazley, 21, from Upper Sackville, is analyzing video to map the position of coral on the ocean floor to determine whether the way that the tiny invertebrate animals reproduce, either asexually (by cloning themselves) or sexually, influences their small-scale distribution. 

A third student, Deanna Ferguson, 20, from Waterloo, Ont., is classifying sea pens, colonies of polyps (small anemone-like individuals), according to genus and species.

"The cruise was, by far, the best possible experience ever!" says Ms. Ferguson. "I can
not wait to go on another one. Everyday was like a new adventure to be had — you never knew what kinds of things were to be seen or what types of organisms were going to be collected."



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